We can’t control the people or events in our lives, but we can ask god to help us change the ways we react to them. When we respond from a place of judgment, knowing best, and general superiority, we usually have no idea we’re doing so. I certainly don’t. It just seems to me I’m right!
One contrary event or difficult person is no big deal, but if I live daily from this vantage point of superior insight and right-of-way, pretty soon I’m going to feel like the world’s turned against me. But guess what? It’s really I who’ve turned against the world. I’m butting my head into mountain cliffs that need to fucking move, swimming up Niagara which is hella stressful, “burning up energy foolishly… trying to arrange life to suit [myself].”
God grants me the power to change this entire landscape by accepting the things I cannot change. Not tolerating them with rolled eyes, not putting up with the stupidity of it all, but accepting that things are the way they are so I can respond constructively. The attitude I need to live this way comes as a reward of working the 12 steps: humility.
The Ultimate Selfishness Test: Driving in the City
When we drive cars, we mechanically take on the very “self-propulsion” described in the Big Book’s preamble to Step 3, so the temptation to assume Director status becomes huge. All the other drivers are pawns, and we’re rightfully a queen – or at least a bishop! We gots places to go and these others are obstacles, obstructions, assholes.
I once attended a stadium concert with a young woman who shares beautifully in AA meetings and seeks god daily. I treated and she drove. After the show, when we finally emerged from the parking lot, the line of cars to the freeway extended in front of us maybe a mile – an endless chain of tail lights. To my surprise, my friend veered into the empty oncoming lane where she zoomed on and on past everyone. I didn’t know what to say or do, but I felt tremendous relief when, at the freeway overpass, we encountered a traffic cop. Instead of letting us turn, he made us pull over and wait. Ten minutes of watching the line go by. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. My friend was beside herself with the cop’s “unfairness.” Finally, when all the cars had gone, the cop chirped his whistle and signaled us to go.
All selfishness stems from spiritual myopia. If my friend could meet the people from those cars individually, if a dimension were to open in which she could converse with each, see photos of their ancestors and childhood, hear the tragedies and delights that have shaped their experience, no way would she have acted as she did. But her driving “dimension” was just as unreal. Normally a kind person, she could see only her own importance, her own “right of way.”
Driving simply underscores the fact that we all live selfishly. To an extent, we have to. We’re each in charge of caring for ourselves, providing for our own needs so we can prosper – a responsibility that often feels overwhelming. But that’s our lower purpose. We also have a higher one.
For me, the analogy of cells in a body works well. Each cell is a distinct entity. It’s busy absorbing nutrients, sending off waste, sensing everything going on around it, and doing all the work of them four stages of mitosis (which, I learned when I underwent radiation for cancer, requires fancy footwork).
“I got shit to do before I can divide, man!” a cell might say. “I got hundreds of mitochondria to manage here, not to mention this long-ass chain of chromosomes to tidy up! Gimme a break!” Yet it’s only because each cell serves a higher purpose, doing its tiny, insignificant part among trillions, that I’m able to write this and you’re able to read it.
We all have shit to do – lots of it – to keep our lives going. But we also have a higher purpose – a collaborative one – “to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.” Each of us with our tiny role to play animates humanity, and thus the world.
A little bit of god: Courage, Candor, Kindness
In every interaction, we can choose to contribute or withhold love from the world as a whole. Every time we hit that crossroad where we might utter words of kindness, and we muster the courage and candor to speak them, we introduce into the cosmos a tiny surge of god-energy. It takes effort sometimes. “You did that beautifully!” might sound dumb. We have to overcome self-consciousness and the dark suspicion that we’re just buttering people up.
I see it as my higher job to maximize goodwill around me. Politically, that means resisting the designs of those who advocate greed and phobia. On a day-to-day scale, it means seeking to leave each person a little better off than I found them. True, I can’t let others walk all over me because I need to care for myself enough to be able to show up in this role. But that’s my means, not my end. Every act of kindness is a positive. A tiny positive, but positive nonetheless.
When I live this way (even when I’m driving!) I feel uplifted. I’m happy. I carry a glowing sun in my heart that I can, I swear, physically feel more with each year of practice. And I can also sense when it’s eclipsed by selfish fear: I feel lonely, self-pitying, and overwhelmed. In essence, I’m dying. A cell cut off from the energy of its sisters will die – no way around it. Or in my case, it just might reach for a drink.
PS: My son’s Mothers Day gift to me:
Japanese kanji for mind-heart-logic meaning
“to think with consideration for others”